FRIENDSHIP AND THE
MEANING OF ATONEMENT
Recently I received an invitation to attend a religious convention where much of the time would be spent discussing the Christian teaching
If one of these invitations had been sent to the apostle Paul, he would have been puzzled about the subject chosen.
What is this word atonement? he might have inquired.
Dont you remember, Paul? Its that special word you gave us in your letter to Rome.
I dont recall using it at all.
Oh, were not suggesting you used the English word. We mean the Greek word that we English-speaking people translate into the word
Well, Paul ponders, perhaps it would help me remember if you could tell me where in Romans Im supposed to have used this
Its about a third of the way through your letter, Paul. Weve invented chapters and verses since you died, and it makes it much easier to
find your place. We call the passage Romans 5:10, 11.
Paul finds the place and begins to readthoughtfully translating it all into English!
We were Gods enemies, Paul begins, sounding very much like the translation of the Good News Bible, but he made us his friends through the
death of his Son. Now that we are Gods friends, how much more will we be saved by Christs life! But that is not all; we rejoice because of what
God has done through our Lord Jesus Christ, who has now made us Gods friends.1
Thats the place right there, you interrupt. There at the end, where you said who has now made us Gods friends. Thats where you used the
Greek word for atonement.
No, thats the regular word for reconciliation, Paul corrects. And I simply warmed up that word reconciliation a bit by
translating it making friends.
But, Paul continues, if the English word atonement really means reconciliation, making friends, I could correctly
use the word atonement next time I translate this passage in Romans. But tell me, my English-speaking friend, what do you mean by the
What Does the Word Atonement Mean?
If the King James Version had not chosen to use the word atonement in the last line of Romans 5:11, we might not be raising this
question. Actually, this is the only occurrence of the word atonement in the entire New Testament of the King James Version. And in the
margin of this verse, later editors of the King James have added a note reminding the reader that this is the regular word for
If you really want to find the meaning of an English word, settle for nothing less than the multivolume Oxford English Dictionary. In that
enormous lexicon you can trace the historical development of the meaning of a word.
Volume One explains that the term atonement was made up of at and one and ment. At-one-ment.
That great old dictionary shows how back in the thirteenth century the word atonement was used to mean being at one,
being in harmony, the opposite of being at odds. And the verb to atone meant in those days to set
at one, to unite. There was even a verb back then that was pronounced to one. Not w-o-n, but o-n-e.
Peacemakers still try to one enemies.
A Later Change in the Meaning
Dictionaries all seem to agree that the original meaning of atonement was harmony, concord, agreement, unity of feeling. And the verb
to atone used to mean to restore friendly relations between persons who have been at variance; hence, reconciliation.
These early meanings, however, are now marked as archaic and obsolete. In 1611, when the King James committee decided to
use the word atonement in Romans 5:11, they understood it in that old, archaic sense.
As time passed, the word atonement came to be used more and more to denote appeasement, making amends, paying a penalty to
satisfy legal demands. As the Oxford English Dictionary observes, Here the idea of reconciliation or reunion is practically lost
sight of under that of legal satisfaction or amends.
In common speech today, we often use the word atone in this later sense of making amends.
A husband comes home much too late to take his wife out to dinner as he had promisedon their wedding anniversary, no less! On the way
home he desperately picks up a box of her favorite chocolates and a large bunch of beautiful roses. These he presents repentantly at the
door. (In theology, thats called appeasement or propitiation).
After considerable effort, at least some measure of communication is re-established between husband and wife. The wife comes up with a solution.
Husband, she announces, you can atone for this disgraceful thing youve done by taking me out to dinner every Monday night for the rest
of the year. Now, thats atonement in the later sense of the word.
Hopefully those efforts to make amends will result in reconciliation and at-one-ment between that husband and wife. The unity of such
at-one-ment is the original meaning of the word atonement.
What Jesus Said about Atonement
When someone asks what I think atonement means, I sometimes reply, when the circumstances are appropriate, I like what Jesus said about it.
But Jesus never talked about atonement, did he?
Ill agree that Jesus never used the wordnor did anyone else in Scripture, including Paul. But I believe Jesus had a good deal to say
about atonement. That is, if you understand atonement in the old, archaic sense of reconciliation and making friends. Look, for example,
at what he said to his Father in that memorable prayer recorded in John 17.
I ask not only on behalf of these, Jesus prayed, referring to his disciples, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me
through their word, that they may all be one.2 Now, thats at-one-ment. As you, Father, are in me and
I am in you, may they also be in us, Jesus continued praying.
What does it mean to be in somebody? If Jesus is in me, and I am in him, and he is in the Father, and the Father is in himI want
to know who is in whom, or if anybody is really in anyone else.
This being in another person has been understood by many to mean in union with, and it is often so translated. The union God
desires with his friends is so close that its like being in each other. Though were individual persons, we can be in such close
union with each other that its as if we were one.
The relationship between the Father and the Son is presented in the Bible as the ultimate model of at-one-ment. The glory that you have
given me I have given them, Jesus prayed to his Father, so that they may be one, as we are one.3
The Price of Atonement
Several times Jesus explained what it would cost to restore his universe, his family, to at-one-ment. He used the term that sometimes is
translated ransom, or redemption price.4 Then he told what that price would be.
When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me. (In saying this he indicated the kind of death he was going
I will draw everyone to me, Jesus said. Not only human beings but angels too are drawn closer into at-one-ment with God as they
consider the meaning of the cross.
Paul was in agreement with this understanding. He spoke of Gods plan that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth, might be
brought into a unity in Christ.6
In another letter, Paul explained that God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making
peace through the blood of his cross.7
Peace in the Universe
In what sense does the universe need Christs peace-making sacrifice? Has there ever been a threat to unity, a breach of at-one-ment, in
Gods heavenly family?
For those of us who are able to take seriously the last of the sixty-six books, Revelation 12 seems to describe a war that began up in
heaven. From Genesis to Revelation one can read of the causes and consequences of that war, and why it cost the sufferings and death of
Christ to win that war and establish peace for the rest of eternity.
There once was at-one-ment in Gods family, before that war began. Back in those days, all of Gods children trusted each other.
All of them trusted their heavenly Father, and he in turn could safely trust in them. And where there is such mutual trust and
trustworthiness, there is peace, harmony, and at-one-ment.
What Went Wrong?
Sadly a conflict of distrust arose, even to the point of open rebellion and war. Disunity and disharmony took the place of unity
and at-one-ment. Thats how sin entered the universe. As John explains, sin is lawlessness and rebellion.8 Or, as Paul describes,
sin is a breakdown of faith and trust.9
The purpose of the plan of salvation is to restore that trust, to bring the rebellion to an end, and thus to establish at-one-ment
once again in the whole universe. All of Gods children are unavoidably involved.
Some seem to find it disappointing, even offensive, to learn that Christ did not die primarily for them. But unless God wins this war
and reestablishes peace in his family, our salvation is meaningless. Who would want to live for eternity in a warring universe?
Without this larger understanding of a conflict that has involved the universe, its hard to understand Pauls explanation that
Jesus shed his blood to bring peace, reconciliation, and unity to Gods children in heaven as well as on earth. But recognition of
the war and its issues helps one to take a larger view of the cross and of the plan of salvation and atonement.
The kind of unity God desires cannot be commanded or produced by force or fear. In the course of human history, many tyrants have
tried to maintain unity by terror and brutality. But that kind of at-one-ment does not last. Look at what has happened in a number of
countries just in recent years.
The kind of at-one-ment God desires is described in the New Testament as a unity that is inherent in our faith and in our knowledge of
the Son of God.10 People who love and trust the same Jesus and the same God are naturally attracted to each other. The same truth about
God that sets them free from tyranny and fear binds them together in the firmest kind of unity. Friends of a friendly God enjoy at-one-ment
with each other.
This is where the meaning of the cross is so important. There can be no friendship and at-one-ment where there is fear. Calvary says
there is no need to be afraid of God. When God says, Be my friend, hes not saying, Be my friend or Ill punish you
severely; Ill even put you to death. You dont talk that way to friendsespecially if you want to keep their friendship. And
friendship is the whole purpose and meaning of atonement.
Atonement Means Making Friends
Paul sums this up in a wonderful message he sent to the believers in Corinth. It adds significance to this passage to realize that Paul had
just passed through a long and painful period of hostility and distrust with the members of the Corinthian church. But his efforts at reconciliation
had finally met with success. In the glow of restored at-one-ment, Paul wrote them these words:
When anyone is joined to Christ, he is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come. All this is done by God, who through
Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also. Our message is that God was making all
mankind his friends through Christ. God did not keep an account of their sins, and he has given us the message which tells how he makes them
Here we are, then, speaking for Christ, as though God himself were making his appeal through us. We plead on Christs behalf: let God change you
from enemies into his friends.11
In this passage, the word that is translated making friends, or changing into friends, is the Greek word often translated
reconciliationand in that one place in the King James Version is translated atonement.
It seems to me that the one who made that incredible offer of friendship in John 15:15 must love this American Bible Society translation
of Pauls jubilant message to the believers in Corinth.
You Mean I Can Come Home?
One of the Lords most memorable parables was about atonementin the original sense of that word. Jesus told about a son who wasted his life and
his share of his fathers estate in riotous self-indulgence. Now penniless and starving, he found employment looking after swine.
As he languished there in the pigsty, he began to remember how good it had been at home and wondered if there might be any way to persuade
his offended father to let him come back.
His thoughts might have been very different had he known that his father had long been looking down the road, hoping to catch a glimpse of his
son coming home. Unfortunately, the son didnt know his father very well.
He began to think of ways to persuade his father to let him in when he arrived at the door. His father could well be very angry with him.
Perhaps he should look for his mother first, and she could help persuade his father to forgive and let him have another chance.
And then there was all that money hed wasted. He would have to find some way to make amends.
I know what Ill do, the son decided. Ill ask him to treat me as one of his hired servants. With that, he started out
on his way home, practicing his speech as he went.
Had he looked up, he might have noticed his father still watching for him down that road. But while he was still a long way off his
father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran to meet him, flung his arms round him, and kissed him.
The son said, Father, I have sinned against God and against you; I am no longer fit to be called your son.
But the father said to his servants, Quick! Fetch a robe, the best we have, and put it on him . . . and let us celebrate with a feast.
For this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found. 12
At last the son had learned the truth about his father. He didnt even have to finish that speech. His father had forgiven him long before.
But he had to come home to find that out. Now his fathers forgiveness led him to real repentance.
As the prodigal stood there in his fathers arms, he began to experience the original meaning of atonement.
Servants understand atonement as making amends.
Friends understand atonement as making friends.
The Older Brother Was Just a Servant
As the sounds of celebration reached the ears of the older brother, he protested that justice had not been done.
Look, he complained to his father, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never
disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! But this son of yours wasted all your property
on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!
My son, the father answered, you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be happy,
because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found. 13
In his preoccupation with justice, the older brother refused to attend the party.
The parable doesnt tell if he ever changed his mind.
1. Romans 5:10,11, GNB.
2. John 17:20,21, NRSV.
3. John 17:22, NRSV.
4. See Matthew 20:28.
5. John 12:32,33, GNB.
6. Ephesians 1:10, REB.
7. Colossians 1:20, NRSV.
8. See 1 John 3:4.
9. See Romans 14:23.
10. Ephesians 4:13, REB.
11. 2 Corinthians 5:17-20, GNB.
12. Luke 15:20-24, REB.
13. Luke 15:29-32, GNB.
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